Before Jussie Smollett Sentencing, His Supporters Ask for ‘Mercy’

Ahead of a sentencing hearing on Thursday, celebrities and racial justice advocates like Samuel L. Jackson and his wife, the actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; and Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., have written letters pleading for leniency for Jussie Smollett, the actor convicted of falsely reporting that he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack.

“Jussie has already suffered,” the Rev. Jackson wrote to the judge handling the case. “He has been excoriated and vilified in the court of public opinion. His professional reputation has been severely damaged.”

Mr. Smollett, 39, was convicted of felony disorderly conduct — which carries a maximum of three years in prison — relating to conversations he had with the police just after reporting the attack. But defendants convicted of similar crimes in the past have been sentenced to probation and community service.

Many of the letters cite Mr. Smollett’s history of volunteer work, the nonviolent nature of his offense and the reputational damage he had already suffered following charges that the 2019 attack was actually a hoax that he had planned to drum up publicity. Others who have written on his behalf include the actress Alfre Woodard and Melina Abdullah, a founder of Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles.

During the trial, the prosecution argued that Mr. Smollett had instructed two brothers, Abimbola Osundairo and Olabinjo Osundairo, to attack him near his Chicago apartment building, yelling racist and homophobic slurs at him, punching him hard enough to only create a bruise and placing a rope around his neck like a noose. Both brothers testified against him, acknowledging their role in the incident, which they said had been staged. The actor himself took the stand during seven hours of testimony over two days to deny that he had played any role.

Prosecutors have not indicated whether they will push for prison time at the hearing.

“It’s the judge who has the total and exclusive authority to impose a sentence,” said Daniel K. Webb, the special prosecutor who handled the case.

Daniel K. Webb, the special prosecutor who handled the Smollett case, has not said whether he will recommend that the actor be sent to prison. Credit…Tannen Maury/EPA, via Shutterstock

At the outset of Thursday’s proceeding, Judge James B. Linn is expected to rule on a motion by lawyers for Mr. Smollett, who is best known for his role in the hip-hop drama “Empire,” that seeks to have the conviction thrown out or for the actor to gain a new trial.

In papers filed with the court last month, the lawyers argued that Judge Linn displayed a “hostile attitude” toward the defense and acted inappropriately when the defense attempted to present evidence that one of the brothers had made homophobic statements and that the attack on Mr. Smollett, who is gay, could have been motivated by bias.

In their motion, the defense lawyers cited an instance in which Judge Linn called a line of questioning about a homophobic comment by Olabinjo Osundairo “very collateral matters.”

The defense argued that this comment could have swayed the jury and that the line of questioning was central to their argument that the Osundairo brothers perpetrated a “real attack” against Mr. Smollett “driven by homophobia.” (During testimony, Olabinjo Osundairo repeatedly denied being homophobic.)

During the trial, Judge Linn rejected the defense’s request for a mistrial at the time, defending his use of the term “collateral” as simply referring to matters outside the direct facts of Mr. Smollett’s case.

As part of their bid for a new trial, the defense also argued that during jury selection, prosecutors displayed a pattern of seeking to dismiss Black potential jurors — resulting in a final group that included one Black juror and a Black alternate.

Prosecutors argued in court papers that the accusation of discrimination during jury selection was unfounded and that they had provided “race-neutral” explanations for challenging the inclusion of those jurors.

Possibilities for Mr. Smollett’s sentence also include restitution, which, in his case, would likely mean paying the city of Chicago for the money it expended while investigating his hate crime report.

In a court filing ahead of the sentencing, a city lawyer and the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department urged prosecutors to ask the court to order Mr. Smollett to pay them more than $130,000, explaining that police officers had “worked around the clock” to find the perpetrators of the attack.

“The city is a victim of Mr. Smollett’s crimes because his false reports caused CPD to expend scarce resources that could have been devoted to solving actual crimes,” the filing said. The city currently has a pending lawsuit against Mr. Smollett in which they asked for the same amount of money.

In their letter to Judge Linn, Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson said they have known Mr. Smollett since he was a child and later through charitable work. The Jacksons asked Judge Linn for “mercy” and argued that Mr. Smollett “used his celebrity to impact community outreach work,” including to aid people in Flint, Mich., during the water crisis.

In his letter, Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote that he worried about Mr. Smollett’s safety in prison as a “well-known, nonviolent, Black, gay man with Jewish heritage.”

In making the sentencing decision, the court will consider Mr. Smollett’s criminal history, which involves a single incident from 2007 in California. He was convicted in that case of driving under the influence, driving without a license and giving false information to the police, all misdemeanors. Mr. Smollett was sentenced to probation and community service and was required to complete substance abuse treatment, according to a pre-sentencing report written by a probation officer and filed with the court.

The report was based on an interview with Mr. Smollett after his conviction, in which the actor said he had been suffering from “excessive stress,” dealing with financial problems and asking to undergo substance abuse treatment for a few years. Mr. Smollett told the probation officer that he hoped to pursue directing.

The actor, who is out of jail on bond, generally declined to discuss the specifics of his case during the interview with the probation officer. But when asked how his family had responded to the ordeal, he said, “They know me, and they know I did not do this.”

Asked whether he planned to stay in his apartment in New York City, Mr. Smollet replied, “Everything is up in the air right now.”

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